Poetry Sunday: Metaphor and Simile, Tools of the Trade

April 29, 2012

Poetry can serve many purposes with the emotions and meanings it conveys.  Some are sad, while others are happy.  Some take us deep into thought while others make us smile at some little point we’ve overlooked.  The point is poetry has a story to tell.  It is the poet’s task to tell the story in a way the reader understands.  This is where metaphor and simile lend a hand.

Though often confused, the two are quite different.  For example, to explain it with a metaphor, one might say, “simile is metaphor with an attitude,” while stating it as a simile, it might read, “Metaphor is like simile.”  In the first case, it states the two things are the same, in a point of view, in the second case, it states they are similar in general.

Of course neither is limited to poetry, though that is where they take up residence most of the time.  One of the most famous metaphors of all time comes from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It[i],

“All the world’s a stage.”

We know the world is not literally a stage but we treat it as if it were by our actions.  In this case, metaphor’s exaggeration helps us understand the

William Shakespeare

point.  Sometimes, such exaggeration gets in the way of understanding.  It makes no sense to say, “He found his way through the maze, after all, all mice are elephants.”  Showing the elephants and mice are the same is just too large a leap.  This is where simile takes over.

Using a simile to compare, you could write the prior statement as “Elephant like, the mouse remembered his way through the maze.”  The simile counts on us knowing elephants have good memories.  It shows mice are similar to elephants in that way.  However, without knowing the point about elephants, the simile has no meaning to the reader.  Simile counts on prior knowledge, metaphor tends to explain itself.  Returning to the Shakespeare quote, it goes on to tell us just how the world is a stage:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances.”

In his metaphor, Shakespeare explains what he means by his statement about the world being a stage.  Even without knowledge of what the stage actually refers too, we understand his meaning.    We can see his point and accept the whole of the world as a stage.  To state the same thing in a simile, you could write:

“Like actors on a stage, people come and go from our lives.”

Somehow, it just does not have the same impact.  In this case, to understand it, we need to know actors enter and leave the stage.  Shakespeare’s metaphor shows us, without knowing anything about actors or stages.  It is up to the poet to know when to use which form of allegory, it is up the reader to judge the poet’s success.

In poetry, similes are somewhat limited to a direct statement in a stanza within a line or two.  Metaphors can do the same but the poem as a whole can act as a metaphor.  In my poem Kite, I use metaphors throughout to describe the attachments in a relationship but the poem as a whole serves as a metaphor on relationships.

With the fairest of breezes,
off I go!  I take to flight.
A silken twine holds me fast
looking back, it leads to you.

You, only you hold the twine,
I rise further to the sky
until no sight of you’s left,
still, the twine holds me to you.

Drunkenly I ride the breeze
knowing that you set my course.
I reach for the high-up clouds
and then strain against your grasp.

Soon whipping winds have me caught,
and they sing upon the twine.
A song we both hear and know,
a sorrowful, wailing song.

Damage done – the string does part
and I flail within a cloud,
leaving you there, holding twine.
Stringy, stretched, useless twine.

You stand there, left wondering |
and I’m lost within the sky.
The twine floats back, back to you
and I’m numb without it there.

Away I fall lost to you
as I crash upon some tree,
leaving you with tangled twine –
the folly of flying kites.

The silken twine is the connection between two people in a relationship.  The kite serves as one person and the kite flyer serves as the other.  Wind acts as the turmoil couples encounter that pulls on the kite string.  Then the whole of kite flying serves as the whole of a failed relationship.  Unlike Shakespeare, I did not explain my metaphoric connections in the poem, as most people will see the links to their own relationships.  That is the great thing about being a poet; we get to make the choice.

Similes are more for simple comparisons.  It is an “A is like B” sort of thing.  For example, in my poem June Bug, I compare bugs getting too close to a light to Icarus.

On a starless night filled with haze
a porch light shines alone.
A yellow-pale reflects on dust
some breath of wind has blown.

And there I sit upon a swing
that moans its off-key sound.
Soon I’m joined by a million wings
that charge this light they’ve found.

They fly a path that’s drunkard-straight
imbibing on the light.
They dare to get but just so close
then escape away with fright.

The light has magic to a point
as they dart and flit around.
But, if to close they dare approach
like Icarus they find ground.

So there I sit and watch the sight
as they swarm and dance in air.
with too much fuss they chase the night
inspired by a porch light’s glare.

Of course, you need to know the mythical story of Icarus for the reference to work, so again, simile counts on prior knowledge, as explaining that myth is a poem all unto itself.  Did you see the direct metaphor I used?  There is one, but in this case, it is what I call a moronic metaphor as it directly disputes itself.  That is a hint by the way.

So both metaphor and simile have a fundamental role in poetry.  They are tools in the poet’s toolbox.  The poet needs to understand when to use which one; the reader needs to know how to connect the dots.   They both add depth to poetry specifically and all forms of communication in general.  Comparison is the way we understand things and that is exactly what they do, they compare.


On a side note:  Kite is an example of blank verse.  Blank verse will be the topic of next week’s post.  If you are not familiar with blank verse, read it over again knowing there is something more to it that free verse.  See if you pick up its natural cadence. 

[i] Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The Tech, MIT. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://shakespeare.mit.edu/asyoulikeit/full.html>.


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